Welcome to the first edition of our weekly Start ‘Em/Sit ‘Em/Pick ‘Em Up advice. It’s hard to make these picks so early in the season, because there’s not much recent evidence to base things on unless you’re dumb enough to think the preseason means something.
However, the NFL regular season waits for nobody, so it’s time to get to work.
Each position below will have a list of weekly “must starts” to go along with the usual recommendations. These groups of fantasy studs (or near-studs) may see some minor additions or subtractions over the course of the season, but apart from injury the idea is to keep them as stable as possible. They’re players that warrant “no-think” fantasy status due to talent, workloads or both, regardless of opponent.
If you disagree with any of the selections, or want to offer some of your own, please post a comment at the bottom of the page. We’ll be here every Thursday until the end of your fantasy season.
Scheduling note: The Vikings and Saints kick the season off on Thursday night, so make sure to set your lineups – or at least the Saints/Vikings portion of them – on time.
Start him: Jay Cutler, Bears
Too easy? Maybe, but Cutler’s average draft position (ADP) on Mock Draft Central had him as the eighth quarterback taken, so his starting status won’t always be a no-brainer. It will be this week, because the Lions had such an awful pass defense last year. They’ve made some upgrades, particularly on the line, but Cutler is as likely as any signal caller to break into the “must start” group thanks to new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Cutler will throw and throw and throw some more, and hopefully he’ll have a clue where the ball is going this season.
Longtime readers might remember Cutler being recommended in this space just in time for his five-interception stinkbomb against the 49ers last November 12. If he throws five picks this week, he will never, ever, EVER be mentioned in this column again.
Sit him: Matt Ryan, Falcons
Ryan heads to Pittsburgh this week to face a Steelers team that features a Roethlisberger-less offense along with a rejuvenated defense thanks to the return of Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who played in just five games last season. Ryan will hand it off plenty to RB Michael Turner, who is back at full speed after an injury-shortened 2009. This game might feature 90 percent rushing plays and end with someone winning 3-2.
Pick him up: Alex Smith, 49ers
Smith is going undrafted in many leagues, and if you can pick him up, Week 1 won’t be the only time he’ll be able to help you. The 49ers have myriad offensive weapons, from multi-dimensional stud RB Frank Gore to Pro Bowl TE Vernon Davis to up-and-coming WR Michael Crabtree. Smith is in a great spot to succeed, and this week’s game in Seattle against the rebuilding Seahawks should be a fine place for him to start showcasing his 2010 fantasy value.
Smith only played in ten-and-a-half games in 2009, but if you stretch his per-game averages over a full season, they’d work out to about 3,600 yards and 27 touchdowns. You’d take that, right?
Start him: Jerome Harrison, Browns
The seas have parted for Harrison in Week 1. His main competition for playing time, rookie Montario Hardesty, tore an ACL in the final preseason game and is done for the year. He gets to run this week against the Buccaneers, who had the NFL’s worst run defense in 2009. It’s hard to ask for better circumstances for your fantasy RB3.
You might remember Harrison as the guy who ran for 561 yards and five touchdowns in the final three games last season. We certainly do, and we’re not sure why he was drafted as the No. 30 fantasy running back this year. Godspeed, Jerome. We’ll proudly raise the flag on your bandwagon, which will be parked here until you give us reason to move it.
Sit him: Jonathan Stewart, Panthers
A lot of you liked Stewart enough to draft him as an RB2. Unfortunately, he gained 550 of his 1,133 yards and scored four of his 10 touchdowns last season in the four December/January games that DeAngelo Williams pretty much missed due to injury (Williams actually missed three of those games, and carried six times in the fourth). Before that stretch, Stewart was on the short end of a backfield platoon with Williams, and might be again when 2010 begins.
As for this week’s opponent, the Giants’ defense had a rough time in 2009, but they have plenty of D-line talent, and were hurt more through the air last year than on the ground – except for the 206 yards Stewart dropped on them in Week 16. Even so, keep Stewart out for this week’s matchup in the Meadowlands if you have a solid alternative on your bench.
Pick him up: Marshawn Lynch, Bills
Lynch is slated to be the third fiddle in the Bills’ backfield this season. However, Fred Jackson is iffy for the season opener with a broken hand that has kept him out of action for most of the preseason, and rookie sensation C.J. Spiller will appear in his first NFL game.
Spiller is loaded with talent, but the Bills didn’t draft him to be an every-down back – at least not right away – so if Jackson can’t go or is limited, Lynch could get some meaningful work, as well as some goal-line carries. This might be the only week all season when Lynch is a viable fantasy starter.
Note: If you hear the Bills say at any point this week that Jackson is expected to play a lot, you forget what you read above, and ditch Lynch. There have been reports that Jackson looks good in practice, but it’s hard to carry or catch the ball with only one good hand. The alternate “pick him up” selection is Houston’s Steve Slaton, who we referenced two weeks ago in the “Bargains and Busts” column. Slaton should help all year in points-per-reception (PPR leagues), and is just a couple of Arian Foster fumbles away from plenty of playing time.
Must starts (17): (WR – 10) Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Miles Austin, Roddy White, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, Marques Colston; (TE- 7) Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley, Jason Witten, Brent Celek, Tony Gonzalez
Start him: Jabar Gaffney, Broncos
The Jaguars’ defense allowed a 67.6 completion percentage last season, which was second-worst in the league. The Broncos come to Jacksonville this week with efficient QB Kyle Orton, who seems to have developed a strong connection with Gaffney that started in earnest with a 21-catch, 282-yard barrage in the final two games of 2009. The Broncos throw more than you think, and Gaffney has a good chance to be their top fantasy wideout.
Sit him: Anquan Boldin, Ravens
The Ravens play the Jets on Monday night, and even though all-universe cornerback Darrelle Revis didn’t sign his fat new contract until eight days before the season opener, we just don’t mess with Revis Island around here. Boldin is heading for a black hole that few elite wideouts escape - check out the game-by-game breakdown from 2009 if you don’t believe us. It’s like Revis has superpowers, only there’s no Kryptonite anywhere.
Pick him up: Jacoby Jones, Texans
The pass-happy Texans have averaged 24.5 points in their last six meetings with the Colts, and lost all six, so points won’t be scarce in this week’s battle at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. We named Jones as one of our sleepers in last week’s column because he’s got some serious speed, and even a tertiary target on this team is a good bet to put up some nice stats against the mediocre Indy defense. Jones is going undrafted in quite a few leagues, so you can still grab him.
Good luck in your first step toward fantasy football domination! See you back here next week.
John Halpin writes his “Wide Write” fantasy football column every week during the NFL season for FOXNews.com. He also writes fantasy columns and early-morning blogs four days a week at FOXSports.com/fantasy, and co-hosts a daily fantasy podcast. You can receive more fantasy news and contact John by following him on Twitter (@jhalpin37), or e-mailing him at email@example.com.